My original Jan 2013 Computer Arts Column: now revised, updated and on ARB
The internet gave us clients demanding their own version of Amazon.com. Social networks gave us clients demanding their own version of Facebook. Now they all want apps that combine Flipboard, Instagram and Angry Birds. Stop. Just stop. Take a second, slam your fingers in your desk drawer, then we'll talk.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating digital (fingers, not pixels) dismemberment because I don’t like apps. Quite the opposite – I love ‘em. It’s this intimate connection on a personal device that drives millions of smartphone and tablet owners to interact with them on a daily, if not hourly basis.
There are very few situations where an app is less-effective than a website when trying to access information or engage an audience. However, if your website isn’t optimised for mobile browsing or your information would be better suited to a PDF, HTML5 web app or even an iBook, then you shouldn’t be thinking about a native app first.
At our current rate of app proliferation, in a couple of years I’ll be discussing the merits of the latest Crimewatch-sponsored Photo Fit Fat Booth or Gillian McKeith’s Turds With Friends. Brands need to focus and spend their money in the right places but designers and developers also need to push back and tell them where to stick it. So to speak.
This ill-conceived digital targeting hit home when I spoke at the Mobile World conference in Dubai last year. One of the more bizarre moments was a debate between mobile network providers (incidentally, big sponsors of the event) and developers. The premise of the debate was “should Telecommunications companies operate their own app stores?” And this set the alarm bells ringing, in my head, not at the venue.
The Telcos argued they should be able to operate outside the official app stores to avoid 30% loss of revenue and set up their own digital retail outlets. The developers wanted to sell individual apps without a store at all. With no one to physically restrain me, I was free to heckle the panel and inform them they were all idiots and not a single one of them was taking the consumer into consideration.
Something I frequently tell developers is "Consumers don't give a crap about how complicated it is to build an app, collate all the assets, co-ordinate the contributing parties and steer the product through the Apple review process. They just want to know the end result is stable, looks and works beautifully, features appropriate content and is available through a trusted platform with a single touch and a password". As a result, I don’t get many Christmas cards from developers, but we deliver amazing results by avoiding complacency and putting the consumer first.
We’ve now reached an interesting point in the evolution of the app. On one hand we have a market voraciously pursuing the development of apps for any brand and any subject at any cost. On the other, we have those that think apps are merely a stepping stone to the next big thing.
As a designer, I spent many years defending Apple during the Jobsless wilderness years with PC devotees mocking me like a child with a melting ice lolly "Apple won't be around this time next year", "Everyone uses PCs, Macs are for the minority (designers)", "You can get Adobe software and Quark on a PC, so why would you use a Mac at twice the price?"
Anyone with a similarly negative opinion of mobile applications needs to sit back and think about what they’re really saying. Apps are neatly packaged software titles and no one in their right mind should be betting against software as a long-term investment. Consumers want the instant gratification of downloading a product direct to their device and syncing content across smartphone, tablet, desktop and TV.
If we take a sensible approach to the way we develop and the digital strategies we adopt, apps will continue to provide ‘a’ solution, not ‘the’ solution. Designers and developers must also be consultants, demonstrate a willingness to reject a bad idea and steer clients to the most appropriate digital platform – which may not always be an app.
UPDATE: When is an app not an app? When it's an iBook of course.
When we were tasked with finding the ‘best platform’ for ‘the best photographs’ of ‘the best rock band in the world’ we turned to iBooks Author for ‘the best coffee table book’.
We began working with Warner Music Group eighteen months prior to launch and ahead of the introduction of iBooks Author production software. We soon saw the shortcomings of our initial app build and the benefits of an iBook and swapped platform at a critical time.
Neal Preston’s stunning photography was ideally suited to full screen pinch-zoomed enlargements and galleries within the iBook and we brought the Led Zeppelin portfolio to life with bespoke audio commentary and additional video interviews by Neal and key industry figures.
With over 250 photos, 80 contact sheets, 25 audio commentaries, 11 video interviews, 24 Led Zeppelin set lists and many samples of ephemera and memorabilia our greatest challenge was one of logistics and effective curation.
We created a unique character for the entire project and wrapped the engaging contents in a recognisable brand that would sit comfortably with the army of existing Led Zeppelin fans and those newly introduced via Apple’s iBookstore and iPad range.
This title also introduces in-book music preview and purchase for the first time within an iBook project – just one of many boundaries pushed.
So when is an app still an app? When it's a Door!
Well, 'The Doors' to be exact. An app offered the only framework flexible enough to accommodate the high technological standards of our client – Jac Holzman, one of the world's greatest living innovators and someone we've lived and breathed this project with for over a year.
Jac founded Elektra Records and signed The Doors to the label in 1966 (amongst other highly-respected recording artists) and this app tells the story of the band through an unrivalled collection of ephemera, music and stories with over 45,000 words of text, a graphic novel depicting Jim's arrest in Miami, FBI files, an interactive timeline and map, hundreds of images and, of course... music.
It's a major step on the road to the evolution of the music box set, but don't take my word for it... here's a superb article by Stuart Dredge for The Guardian and a few words from Jac in the video below.